Pride trumps panichttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/pride-trumps-panic/

Pride trumps panic

Now,the new Pakistan government must re-negotiate the internal balance of power

Now,the new Pakistan government must re-negotiate the internal balance of power

Nawaz Sharif is sending out soft signals that neither the Taliban nor the deep state have liked. His overture to India,based on the popularly backed free trade with India,has upset the establishment. The foreign office in Islamabad,known for its India-centric outlook and regular interface with the establishment agencies,has not waited for the next government to replace the PPP ambassador in Washington with retired ex-foreign secretary Riaz Khokhar,a competent but confrontational diplomat.

Pakistan held its 2013 election under threat from the Taliban-al Qaeda terrorist combine and defiantly obtained an unprecedented 60 per cent turnout at the polls. The European Union Election Observer Group nodded approvingly,saying only 10 per cent of the polling stations saw any violation of rules.

The terrorists struck in Karachi and Quetta but the effect was marginal,most probably because the Taliban were able to close down offices of the parties they did not favour; and in Quetta the big blast targeting the inspector general of police was an Uzbek-al Qaeda revenge for damage done by the Pakistan army to an Uzbek madrasa in the tribal areas.

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As the results trickle in slowly,Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leads in the National Assembly and will form government with the help of a rather large number of independents and its allied parties. It has forged ahead once again,with an overwhelming vote from Punjab,where its rising opponent,the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan,has done less well than expected. Even the Gallup surveys that predicted Sharif’s victory had expected Khan to do better than the 30-odd seats he has bagged.

Two “secular” parties that the Taliban openly threatened to target — the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party (ANP) — have been wiped out. The third party under threat of terrorism,the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM),suffered three attacks on its headquarters in Karachi,but remains undaunted because of its capacity to return violence with violence. Still,it could not help losing some of its strongholds to the rising tide of the Taliban-exempted PTI.

In Karachi,the largest Pashtun city in the world,the ANP simply closed its election offices when the Taliban came to its stronghold Sohrab Goth and ordered a shutdown. In Peshawar,a city ruled by the Taliban,the PTI won handsomely and will form government in the erstwhile North West Frontier Province,now renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Under the tutelage of terrorism,Pakistan has removed its “liberal” parties from the electoral scene. ANP leader Asfandyar Wali Khan,who stopped living in the province where over 800 of his workers were murdered by the Taliban,now accepts defeat — with obvious relief — from his house in Islamabad. The PPP,whose leader Benazir Bhutto was,according to her son Bilawal,killed by the Taliban,has lost heavily in Punjab,where peace was achieved by the ruling PML-N through a compact with an affiliate of the Taliban.

During elections,the PPP’s ex-prime minister,Yousaf Raza Gilani, lost a son to Taliban kidnappers,and has quickly resigned his post in the party before approaching the ISI for “intercession”,aping the precedent of another PPP kidnapping,that of the son of the former governor of Punjab,Salmaan Taseer,who was murdered by a radicalised policeman for criticising Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law targeting non-Muslims. The apparently Taliban-dictated swing to the right in Pakistan seems to follow the trend in the Islamic world,the only exception being Bangladesh where,too,a “secular” ruling Awami League will not restore the constitution to its original secular character fearing popular backlash. (It has a three-fourths majority in Parliament!)

The election,however,remains a matter of pride for Pakistan. The people have come out to vote and not cared for the Taliban rhetoric that democracy is against Islam. Pakistan is certainly not Egypt,where religious outfits like the Salafist al-Nour and Muslim Brotherhood can come to power. By moving to the far right,most conservative political parties have successfully stolen the thunder of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and the Jamaat-e-Islami is now reduced to finding support in the tribal areas.

The only exception to the conservative trend was the victory in Balochistan of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) of the secular Mahmood Khan Achakzai,whose father Abdul Samad Khan used to be known as the “Baloch Gandhi”. Luckily for him,the PML-N has won enough seats in Balochistan to get together with him to oust a more Taliban-oriented JUI from power.

But Balochistan has been troubled during polls,showing the lowest turnout of 35 per cent,while the Baloch have not done well enough to balance what appears to be a Pashtun-dominated mandate. Terror in Balochistan is two-sided because,according to the Supreme Court of Pakistan,the state,too,is involved in it. Just before the 2013 election,Declan Walsh,correspondent of The New York Times,was expelled from Pakistan for a 2011 article titled “Pakistan’s Secret Dirty War”.

Prime minister-to-be Nawaz Sharif is sending out soft signals that neither the Taliban nor the deep state has liked. His overture to India,based on the popularly backed free trade with India,has upset the establishment. Retired Admiral Taj M. Khattak warned him in an article on May 15: “Anyone trying to embrace India tightly doesn’t go well with China,which guards its ‘core interests’ with unreserved passion and zeal. In this regard,Nawaz Sharif might do well not to hurry up on his Indian invitation and instead visit Beijing to meet the new Chinese leadership.”

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The foreign office in Islamabad,known for its India-centric outlook and regular interface with the establishment agencies,has not waited for the next government to replace the PPP ambassador in Washington with retired ex-foreign secretary Riaz Khokhar,a competent but confrontational diplomat,whose earlier posting in Washington and New Delhi had deepened,rather than removed,bilateral contradictions. Pakistan’s official television channel,PTV,promptly staged a discussion between three retired diplomats — two,including the anchor,opposing the “feared” normalisation of relations with India and the US. Nawaz Sharif will have to run the gauntlet of the establishment-propelled Defence of Pakistan Council led by the most powerful jihadi leader in Pakistan,Hafiz Muhammad Saeed,whose former outfit,Lashkar-e-Toiba,killed the Indian secret agent Sarabjeet in a Lahore jail.

Both Sharif and Khan favour some kind of “peace deal” with the Taliban,who are neither centralised enough in their leadership to be reliable — as discovered by the Pakistan army — nor reconciled to the minimal irreducible position of the Nawaz-Khan duo of sticking with “Western” democracy in Pakistan. Khan has discovered being anti-American is not enough. One overly pessimist prediction on the TV channels is that the next government may not last beyond a year or two.

The writer is a consulting editor with ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

express@expressindia.com

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